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Czech government expression of regret over forced sterilization of Roma women is historic but insufficient

Prague, 8.12.2009 6:06, (The Prague Post)

On Nov. 23, Prime Minister Jan Fischer announced the government had adopted a motion submitted by Human Rights and Minorities Minister Michael Kocáb to explicitly express regret for illegal sterilizations of women in the Czech Republic, violations Fischer called "very, very significant failures."

Sitting in the audience at the press conference were a dozen Roma women, just a few of the many who have survived these abuses and were hearing clearly from their government for the first time that what had happened to them was both illegal and wrong. There should be no doubt the government's acknowledgment of these crimes is a milestone, as is its tasking of the Health Ministry to follow up.

Human rights activists have been trying to bring an end to this practice since the 1970s, when a Charter 77 document warned the country would face genocide charges if it did not stop incentivizing Roma women to undergo sterilization. While the state program paying women to undergo sterilization "in the interests of public health" was abolished in 1991, illegal sterilizations of Roma women continued in an even more insidious form, possibly as late as last year. In the democratic era, instead of social workers identifying appropriate candidates for sterilization, doctors have been opportunistically sterilizing them during Caesarian deliveries. Unfortunately, a 2007 case seems to indicate the communist-era practice is still alive and well in the mind of at least one social worker in north Moravia, who instructed a Roma client that two of her three children would be taken into state care unless she underwent sterilization. The woman tried to avoid the surgery several times, succumbing to the pressure only to keep her family intact. Police have opened an investigation into the case.

Kocáb's motion was necessarily the result of a political compromise negotiated with the rest of the Cabinet. He was quoted in Lidové noviny Nov. 24 as saying the statement was just the "first phase" of addressing the issue and that he is leaving something for his successors to build on. What he managed to negotiate was the bare minimum: an acknowledgment of these crimes and an expression of regret. Previous Cabinets have been silent on the issue ever since Czech Ombudsman Otakar Motejl released his 2005 Final Statement on the matter calling for an apology, compensation and an upgrade in legislation. In the same Lidové noviny article, Motejl is quoted as saying, "The government is making the minimum pretense of a desire to concern itself with this material."

This move is, therefore, both groundbreaking - an action the survivors and their advocates thought might never come - and unsatisfactory, in that the executive branch is failing to make full use of its powers to address what are some of the most serious human rights abuses in the history of Czechoslovakia and the present-day Czech Republic and Slovakia. Motejl has been cited as saying that, since the 1980s, on the territory of Czechoslovakia, an estimated 90,000 women were pressured to undergo sterilization. In April this year, eight Slovak Roma women who were denied access to their own medical records for more than a decade won a case against that country before the European Court of Human Rights. Why did they want to view their records? To learn whether they had been sterilized during other procedures without their consent. But the Slovak government has not yet taken steps to reopen its investigation into these suspicions.

Governments do not exist merely to lament crimes and human rights abuses, but to enforce the law, including human rights law, and to bring perpetrators to justice. In other cases of communist-era violations, the Czech state has recently seen its way to paying compensation, as in the recent announcement by the Education Ministry that it will compensate students who were expelled from higher education for political reasons between 1948 and 1956. What prevents the state from redressing the illegal sterilizations, especially given that they have persisted into the present?

As all who follow the human rights situation in the Czech Republic are aware, the country has one of the highest rates of expressed antipathy toward the Roma in all of Europe. Not all of those who have been illegally sterilized were Roma (or women - a handful of men were also reportedly targeted), but, as Motejl's report clearly shows, impacting the Roma birth rate was considered desirable during the communist regime. The more recent cases are the product of a medical system that views efficiency as a primary value and argues that sterilizing women during Caesarian delivery spares them of having to undergo separate surgery. That would be well and good if the women had actually consented to these operations, but, as we know from the court cases under way, when consent to sterilization was sought at all, it was sought when the women were already in labor.

The state must formally apologize to anyone who has been sterilized against his or her will on its territory, irrespective of what political regime was in charge, and must compensate them. As many human rights activists have explained to anyone who would listen for the past five years, a procedure could be implemented similar to the one instituted in Sweden in the 1990s, which presumed that anyone sterilized in the country between 1930 and 1970 did not give proper consent and established a procedure for reviewing complaints and paying compensation.

Obviously, this will take a great deal of work, but it is work that can no longer be neglected. As the debate over the pig farm on the site of the World War II-era concentration camp for Roma shows, justice for human rights abuses committed against the Roma in this part of the world has been held hostage for far too long out of fear of political backlash. The lack of action on these issues caters to the anti-Roma sentiment that populists from all political parties try to exploit whenever they can.

It is time the government gave real meaning to the words "never again."

This piece was originally printed in The Prague Post on 2 December http://www.praguepost.com/opinion/2982-unequal-measures.html.

Gwendolyn Albert, Gwendolyn Albert
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